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Touchy Subject

Biometric technology: Is it time for your computer to get to know you?

Keep forgetting the passwords to your confidential computer files? In a few years, you may be able to forget them permanently. Instead, biometric security devices will verify your identity based on the unique attributes of your fingerprints, facial features, voice or even your handwriting. Recent breakthroughs in microchip technology and manufacturing processes have reduced both the size and the price of biometric devices. Taking advantage of such innovations, a small but growing number of PC makers, including Hewlett-Packard, are planning to incorporate biometric devices such as fingerprint readers into the keyboards and laptop casings of future product lines.

Still, given the cost and effort involved in switching from passwords to a relatively unproven technology like voice verification or fingerprint reading, why should a small business protect its computers with a biometric security system? Because passwords have simply ceased to provide an adequate level of computer security, says Robert Clyde, vice president and general manager of the Security Management Business Unit at AXENT Technologies Inc., a Rockville, Maryland, provider of information security solutions.

"Unfortunately, password cracking has become pretty straightforward," Clyde says. "Users choose passwords that are pretty easy to guess, and password-cracking programs are getting more powerful. Even passwords that were thought to be secure five years ago may not be secure today."

Another reason to upgrade to biometrics is convenience. "The biggest difference between biometrics and a password is that a fingerprint is a password you just don't forget," says Ed Murrer of Santa Clara, California, Veridicom Inc., a manufacturer of fingerprint readers. "In a few larger corporations, it's been shown that 50 percent of help-desk calls are related to forgotten passwords." It also means your IT manager will spend less time changing, updating and tracking passwords, and more time on important business functions.

While fingerprinting's similarity to police booking procedures might bother some people, Murrer says it hasn't really been an issue. "The people who adopt this technology know they have a security problem and believe the cure is worth the medicine," he says. "Fingerprint readers are used to authenticate users, not identify them."

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This article was originally published in the April 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Touchy Subject.

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